The divinity is in the detail

23 Jun 2014

The monsoon has stepped up its game this week, unleashed its liquid combat in earnest. For most of June the rain was just scrimmage, one or two daily downpours sandwiched like damp parenthetical interludes between balmy expanses of sunshine. Now the days are waterlogged, soggy, wrinkled from dozing in the bath. 

I had just begun to master the obstacle course of the streets and now the roads are riddled with puddles, the crowdedness compounded by an army of umbrellas, ajostle in a slippery slapdash of plasticized technicolor domes. Apparently I've made it to the next blasted level in the Kathmandu Street Wars video game.

Since I arrived in this dumbfounding city, I've done a lot of really cool things. I attended the Rootdown Festival, an outdoor counterculture jamboree in an overgrown backlot in Tripureshwor. Nepalese DJs spun Hindi trance while breakdancers grooved in the moonlight. Street artists spray painted renegade masterpieces and skateboarders caromed through the sky. 

 

I saw a Nepali theater company pull off a truly brilliant rendition of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull despite having a thrift shop costume budget and endearingly imperfect English. 

I spent an entire bewildering day discovering the ins and the numerous outs of the big city Nepalese mall. I went there expecting an air conditioned respite, a sterilized escape from the madness. But the shops are just as messy, just as shuffled and scrambled, as any in the average bazaar. There is no A/C and no generator either, the escalators stopping and starting unexpectedly, subject to the spastic electrical whims of the city just like anyplace else. 

The food court actually has its own sovereign currency and you can't buy anything without it. You have to make a pilgrimage to the food court teller and exchange your rupees for points. 

The movie theater employs a security force of inordinate solemnity and size. They scrutinize the contents of everyone's bags as if they were guarding the Pentagon, fastidiously searching for such unacceptable contraband as candy, water, and cigarettes. Anyone found possessing such illicit items must check them with the sergeant of unauthorized particulars, who wears cargo pants and a beret. 

They also pause the film halfway through for a 15-minute "interval." Add that to the interminable parade of commercials that preceded the parade of previews, and my estimated pickup time for Joel the Chauffeur was laughably, ridiculously inaccurate. 

I went to Swayambhunath, "the Monkey Temple", and watched the sacred monkeys gallivanting, enjoying their sacred monkey capers and their sacred monkey schemes. They picked fights with stray dogs and terrorized tourists and stole the vast majority of the edible offerings right out from under Vishnu's bright blue nose. 

 

I've attended two film screenings, bussed into the mountains, and learned how to make masala tea. I've discovered a hidden Newari cafe that's run by indigenous women who grow their own food and whose cooking is fit for the tables of Shiva himself. 

But of all the things I've done, the events I've attended, the squares and the temples I've seen, it's the tiniest things that have affected me the most—it's the details that speak to my soul. The little boy with no legs who was dancing his heart out in the grass at the Rootdown Festival. The single tear that landed not a yard from my feet during Konstantin's lament in the theater. I watched that drop of liquid glisten on the hardwood like it held all the love in the world.

The mall guard who broke his soldierly facade to flash me a clandestine smile. The Nepali punk in the Sex Pistols T-shirt swaggering black-booted circles around the central stupa at Swayambhunath, spinning prayer wheels and whispering to God. 

My favorite thing to do in this vast, seething city is to wander the maze until I'm lost. On my long walks to nowhere, I dissolve in the tableaux of everyday Nepali life. I walk until I have no idea where I am, until I'm a little bit worried. Then I walk some more, until my head stops talking, until I cease to exist. 

I become the schoolboys sullying their uniforms in rough-and-tumble races round the shrines. I become the mothers calling out from the courtyards, the sisters fetching water from the wells. I become the grandfathers sitting on the doorsteps, smiling through their seas of golden wrinkles. Sometimes my front door surprises me when I reach it, but I always find my way home. 

Last night I was traipsing through the night-shrouded streets, wishing I'd remembered my flashlight. The power was out in my rain-soaked block and the rats were rummaging through the rubbish that accumulates like snowdrifts in the cobblestone roads.

The world seemed to dance in the bouncing headlights of passing mopeds and tuk tuks. It wobbled in the dark like a snake charmer's song, swaying in the flickering lattice of candlelight that spilled through the woodwork of the shrines. The waltzing constellation of little holy flames glittered in the eyes of pedestrians, reflected in the puddles like tiny drowned galaxies of incandescent, undulating stars.

Stopping for a moment to let a taxi pass, I sensed someone watching from a courtyard. I peered into the gloaming of the shadowy atrium, discerned there a figure in the dark. A diaphanous red sari fluttered in the breeze, arms held aloft a slender flute. A vermillion tikka adorned the third eye of a forehead fashioned from stone. It was Krishna, a sculpture of the woodwind-wielding trickster-God, dressed to the nines by devotees. 

He smiled a granite smile, a mischievous smile, an ancient smile steeped in silent song. Without deciding to, I smiled back, a small salute to the subterfuge of night.


"Mystery is not about traveling to new places

but about looking with new eyes." —Marcel Proust

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